Regardless of how yesterday’s general election in the United Kingdom turned out, 60 million British consumers will at least have another 20 months to enjoy some of the benefits of being in a common European marketplace.
After that, the day-to-day cost of leaving the European Union (EU) will hit virtually every British citizen every time they use their mobile phone on holidays, book a flight or shop for the most British of foods that make their cuisine unique.
At every turn, they’ll be paying more — and without the benefit enjoyed by other Europeans.
Take mobile phones, for instance.
From now until the end of March 2019 when the Brexit negotiations must conclude, every Brit who uses a mobile phone to connect to the internet or make a phone call anywhere across the 28 member-states that make up the EU will avoid roaming charges.
Effective next Thursday, expensive roaming charges are to be abolished across the EU, meaning that a Greek politician making frantic phone calls from Brussels, to French chefs sourcing recipes in Denmark, or Brits whooping it up in the nightclubs of Magaluf or Ibiza can call the numbers in Germany without fear of clocking up hugely expensive phone bills.
For the past three years, the European Commission — in effect the appointed “cabinet” that works in conjunction with the European Parliament that’s directly elected from member-states — has been trying to eliminate or regulate the roaming charges applied by telecommunication corporations across the bloc. In deciding to leave the EU, one of the reasons voiced by British voters was the slow pace of reforms — and very often not finding a solution to a problem was the solution itself as individual nations worked out their respective bargaining positions.
With the EU founded on the principle of the free movement of goods and people across each of the member-states, roaming charges were viewed as an impediment — even if they were a lucrative one to the telecommunications providers themselves — to free movement of service across national boundaries.
The move on June 15 takes effect across all 28 EU nations only — but does not specifically apply to nations within the European Economic Area. That’s a larger entity that enjoys the benefits of free trade with the EU itself, and includes non EU territories such as the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Andorra and Switzerland.
But whatever benefits the Brits enjoy come Thursday will have to be negotiated as part of the Brexit talks, and even then the likelihood is that the roaming charges will reapply. With Theresa May wanting a hard Brexit before yesterday’s general election, roaming charges are very low on any list of negotiations.
Smart Brits might think they can avoid the re-introduction of roaming charges post-Brexit by getting a phone with an account from a European provider. But that’s not going to be possible, with EU providers wanting proof of residency before issuing anything more than the most basic prepaid model with extremely limited data. And those accounts will be quickly suspended if continually used in a post-Brexit UK where roaming would apply.
A common open-skies policy across the EU will also have implications for Britons after leaving. Post-Brexit Brits also face the prospect of being shut out of the EU27 open-skies agreements that have allowed for budget airlines to expand services across Europe at prices that make it more expensive to get a day’s ticket for the London Underground than it is to fly from a London-area airport to a Polish, Italian or Spanish destination. Ryanair, Europe’s largest budget carrier and based in Dublin, recorded pre-tax profits of €1.4 billion (Dh5.77 billion) for 2016 — and that’s after cutting fares on 40 per cent of its routes.
It’s possible to fly Ryanair from Liverpool to Spanish resort islands for as little as €9.00 one-way. Add in airport taxes and forgo anything bigger than 7kg of cabin baggage, and the air fare comes in at €55 for a return trip for a non-peak season week. If you’ve parked your car at Liverpool airport while you’re soaking up the Spanish sun, the parking fee will be €56!
Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary says he predicts that the airline will one day be able to offer seats for free, leaving passengers to pay only airline taxes and fees, and he will still make a profit based on incidental charges — after all, not everyone can go on holidays using just a strict cabin luggage allowance.
Ryanair will carry 119 million passengers on its 1,800 routes using 360 Boeing 737-800 aircraft this year. For O’Leary, who offered free flights to Britons to fly back to the UK to vote in last June’s Brexit referendum, any Brexit negotiation must include continued unfettered access to the UK, and he has gone as far as to suggest that if the Brexit deal doesn’t work for him, he’ll cease all Ryanair operations in the UK, focusing on Europe alone.
He’s a man used to getting his way, and stopped Ryanair flights to Newquay in southeast England because of a local £5 (Dh23.77) tax imposed by the Cornwall council, and stopped flights to Fuerteventura, Spain, in a similar tiff.
Only this week, the European Commission has said it wants to try and limit the powers of air traffic controllers across Europe whose strike actions impede holiday flights regularly. In theory, in a post-Brexit EU, all European carriers would be cleared to fly when strikes occur. The same might not necessarily apply to British aircraft flying over France, where French air traffic controllers are on strike.
And going to the supermarket after March, 2019, will result in sticker shock. Post-Brexit Brits also face losing some of the foodstuffs that they consider to be unique. Thanks to EU rules that protect the status of foods, Parmesan cheese or Cornish clotted cream are unique because they have been recognised as such under “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO legislation). Without that destination, there’s nothing to stop any cheesemaker using any milk from any cow and call it Leicestershire Cheddar. The same applies for any smoked salmon, rather than Scottish smoked salmon.
The rub for those who produce these speciality foods is that they retail at 2.3 times more than other similar foods. Britain’s ministry of agriculture has yet to formulate a plan for dealing with the PDO items, and they are likely to be included in existing EU regulations that are simply taken over by the UK once Brexit happens.